Ted Ngoy’s story is one of peaks and pits, at times sweet like a sugared glaze and at others bitter like black coffee. His new autobiography, The Donut King: The Rags to Riches Story of a Poor Immigrant Who Changed the World, charts his tumultuous journey, one that starts in 1970s Cambodia as political unrest foments and travels to Southern California, where he and his family move as refugees. There, a commitment to a better life, coupled with a fiery responsibility to his family, galvanizes Ngoy to build a multi-franchise donut empire toward a more promising future.
His success was later punctured by a gambling addiction that almost cost him his fortune. But ever the determined and dedicated family man, he pulled through, sold his company, and moved back to his home country where he’s since used his business acumen and entrepreneurial savvy to train a new generation of Cambodian leaders.
The Donut King is Ngoy’s story. On the heels of its release, I called him to talk shop—donut shops, that is. Oceans apart (he in Cambodia, myself in New York), we video chatted about how his donut empire came to be. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Valerio Farris: When you fled to the U.S., who came with you?
Ted Ngoy: My wife, three kids, and a nephew.
VF: Why'd you leave?
TN: We left because of the war. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, the Pol Pot regime, came to Cambodia and everybody had to flee the country. Especially me. I was a major in the army at the time, and if I didn’t leave I would’ve been killed. So we had no choice. We couldn't live in a communist regime.
VF: So you left and went to Los Angeles.
TN: Yeah, on the refugee program. The U.S. military took me and my family to Southern California, a place called Camp Pendleton where the refugee camp had been set.
VF: Was it difficult to leave home?
TN: No, because everything had been prepared and arranged by the U.S. government. I lived on that base for one month. A church in the area sponsored our family, so we left the camp on July 15, 1975 to live in a house that they had arranged for us.
VF: What did you do for work?
TN: The church rented the house for us and also offered me a job as a custodian. So I cleaned the church and cut the grass. But I still didn’t feel like I was earning enough to feed my family of eight, so I requested another job. My sponsor took me to a gas station, where I worked as an attendant. I worked both jobs. During the day I was a custodian at the church and at night I worked at the gas station.
VF: How did you get involved in donuts?
TN: Next door to the gas station was a small donut shop. One night when there wasn’t much traffic, a coworker asked me to watch the gas station while he went to get some donuts for us. He brought back a dozen day-old donuts. I liked them. They reminded me of a sweet in Cambodia. I brought the leftovers home to my family, and they all liked them too.
The next night, when I was working alone, I asked the manager of the shop if she thought I’d be able to open a donut shop like hers with my $3,000 in savings. Of course, at the time I didn’t understand the cost of living in America. I didn’t know anything because I’d never done business before.
She said, “Don’t be crazy. You don’t know how to bake, you don’t know how to run a business. Don’t waste your savings. Go to Winchell’s Donuts and they’ll give you manager training. They’ll train you and give you a shop that you can run yourself.”
Just like that, the next morning, I called my church sponsor and said, “Do you think you can take me to Winchell’s?” He said, “Ted, what for?” “I want to apply,” I said. “for manager training.” He thought I was crazy. “You don’t speak English and your background, you’ve never done any business. Do you even know how to make donuts?” I said, “No sir, but I want to be trained.” “O.K., I’ll take you, but I guarantee that they’re not going to take you.”
We talked to the manager and he said, “Well, Ted, we never recruit people from Southeast Asia. It would be our first time.” But my sponsor talked nice about me, about my responsibility, my career in the army. They accepted me and put me to work right away. I worked all day and all night. Besides being a church custodian and a gas attendant, I also had another part-time job at the Builders Emporium in the evenings. I had already been working 24 hours, but because I wanted the job, I started for them right away. That day I worked 32 hours in a row. But I got the job.
The next day I went to work as a trainee. It was intensive and comprehensive. They gave me a shop in Newport Beach. It was a small-volume store because they knew I was Asian and didn’t speak the best English. When I worked, I made the donuts myself so I didn’t have to pay a baker, and my wife and my cousin came to take care of the service. Because of that, we saved so much in the first year.
I still had the dream of opening a shop myself. I saw in the newspaper a business opportunity, a donut shop for sale. I called the owner, and my wife and I went to go see it. I negotiated a price for the store and bought it. I was able to buy it with the salary and savings I had earned at Winchell’s.
In 1975, there weren’t many refugees in California. But starting in the '80s, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, a lot more Cambodian refugees started arriving in America. There was so much demand for work. Suddenly, so many Cambodians came to me asking for jobs and help. I began to sponsor refugees. I helped them, I supplied them, I taught them. I wanted to make sure everyone got out of welfare and could become self-sufficient businesspeople.
I started thinking about expansion. I bought my second shop in Fullerton and changed the name to Christy Donuts. Suddenly, I owned so many shops!
VF: How many shops?
TN: By the time I left California in 1992 to participate in Cambodian elections, I had about 70 donut shops.
VF: And who works at the stores now?
TN: In 1992 I sold everything. I gave some to my children but most of the money I brought back to Cambodia to do politics. I don’t own anything anymore.
VF: What’s your favorite donut?
TN: When I used to make the donuts at night, the first ones that would come out were the glazed ones. Plus, I’d always have a pot of coffee ready. Right when it comes out of the fryer, and it’s still warm and freshly glazed. That’s my favorite.
From Donut King: The Rags to Riches Story of a Poor Immigrant Who Changed the World (Ted Ngoy, 2018)
The plane ride was long and uncomfortable, but we felt happy to be flying away from the chaos and heartbreak of Southeast Asia. When we touched down at Camp Pendleton, we were taken to the barracks that would be our new temporary home. Then we were given food, my first American meal. I don’t recall what it was, but I do vividly remember eating on American soil with my family while the California sun warmed the earth outside. The quality of light seemed different than in Cambodia, a honey-color I had never seen before. It was a beautiful sun, and it gave me hope.
To stay in the country as refugees, we needed sponsors. Aside from those travelers I had encountered as a tour guide years earlier, we didn’t know any citizens. We were told not to worry—charitable groups had been following the atrocities in Cambodia and were signing up to sponsor refugees. In the meantime, we were free to leave the base during the day. We visited the city of Oceanside a few times. The city sits directly south of Camp Pendleton and, as the name implies, is situated along a pristine stretch of the Pacific Ocean. Looking west, the water looked very different to us. Cambodia is situated on the Gulf of Thailand, and the open Pacific seemed much grander and more vast than any water I had ever seen. It made us feel very small. Across that immense ocean was our home, our friends, and our relatives.
We had no money, so we didn’t take more than a couple trips off base. There were other Cambodian refugees waiting for sponsorship and processing, and the same sense of community that had helped us through U-Tapao took hold at Camp Pendleton. The base permitted visi- tors, and some of the other refugees had family members who had already been placed in Southern California or emigrated years earlier as students or businessmen.
When these visitors came, they brought money, deli- cious food, and good cheer. In fact, it seemed to me that most of the other refugees received visitors, which made my wife and children feel even more alone in this new place. We knew no one in California, and we had no way of contacting Suganthini’s brother-in-law in Pennsylvania. We didn’t even have enough money for a phone call. Once more we felt an odd mix of emotions. We were so happy to be in California, but we were uncertain about the future. It was a heart- wrenching month, and as I did many times in those days, I resolved to build my family a life of comfort and peace, no matter what.